Before I get into this article I want to share a quick update from our recent days. We recently hiked out of the northern end of the Sierra Nevada range and have now entered the Cascade range that will take us through the remainder of California and Oregon, into Washington. In the past weeks, we passed by steaming fumaroles and boiling lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park, hiked a 41 mile day across the notoriously dry Hat Creek Rim, and got our fill of views of the beautiful Mount Shasta. To date, we have hiked 1600 miles and cleaned up 628 pounds of litter. We also passed the PCT halfway point recently, marked by a nondescript little marker post alongside the trail. Now, on with the main purpose of this article, strength.
Finding strength in the Sierra. There are many aspects to strength, both physical and mental, but for the purposes of this article we will primarily focus on the physical aspect because I find the mental aspects of strength to relate more closely to our upcoming article on grit. Strength is achieved through a simple formula of train, fuel, rest and repeat. Proper form is also necessary for this formula to work.
Before we delve into the other aspects of building strength, we must first consider form. Without proper form for any exercise, one cannot build longterm sustainable strength. Improper form will eventually lead to a point of injury, therefore reducing any strength building capabilities. This is true of any physical endeavor. For more information on form, read through Cap's recent Foundations article on the importance of good form.
For every athlete, training is essential for success. For every being, training is essential to mastery of the body. Your body is your vehicle through this world, it will take you anywhere you want to go, so long as you build up to those events with proper training. Currently hiking the PCT, which is essentially our 'main event', we still find ourselves looking at the individual challenges of the trail as a progression in training. Crossing the desert we opted to skip most water caches, in an attempt to see if it was possible to hike to PCT without them (we only used 3), but this also meant carrying more water all day. That became a great opportunity to build strength for our upcoming challenges in the Sierra. Through much of the Sierra, we had to carry bear canisters, extra warm layers, safety gear like microspikes and ice axes, and as many as 8 days of food at a time. Our packs were heavy. They were downright stout. We carried them with ease at over 10,000 feet of elevation for weeks because we had carried the extra weight early on in the desert. In turn, those heavy packs have prepared us for our next challenge: testing our physical endurance to see how many miles we can move per day while still enjoying the area and packing out all the trash we find. So now we have cut our pack weights down to the minimum and started to trot/shuffle/run and even find ourselves enjoying it, whether or not you believe it. Trotting has put the strain of the journey into our muscles, which rebuild, rather than our joints which take much longer to rebuild once damaged.
The next aspect of strength is fuel. You wouldn't get far in a car with an empty fuel tank and you won't get very far without eating either. Many backpackers seem to get by with only a minimum amount of food (because it is lighter), and as a result they get skinny, many thru-hikers get really skinny and begin to lose muscle and therefore strength. To build strength, one must eat enough to rebuild the muscle tissue that is broken down during exertion. Proper nutrition in an adequate amount will always be superior to sugar-laden foods that lack whole food ingredients. Eating whole fruits and veggies, clean sources of protein, like fish, and lots of fats from nuts, nut butters, and oils will help you stay fueled up for optimum performance and long-term strength.
Recovery is perhaps the most important step in building muscular strength. Muscle tissue is not built while training, in fact it is broken down. When given a chance to recover, that broken down muscle tissue will rebuild stronger and more resilient than it was before. Time for recovery is an essential aspect of long-term strength. Our idea of recovery time is to ensure that we are not hiking after 7 pm or before 7 am, giving us at least 12 hours per day of being off our feet so we can stretch, do yoga, and generally rest our tired bodies. Mixing in occasional breaks from the trail, like a few days in Chico for a presentation, or taking an unexpected day to explore Mount Shasta and watch movies, will help your body to repair itself and rebuild you into a better version of your previous self.
Now the time has come to do it all over again. Yep that's right, this is the repeat stage to building strength. Strength is not something you build once and then have forever, it is something that must be continuously maintained. So go forth, challenge yourself to do something the hard way, then reward yourself with good food and lounge time before doing it all over again. Enjoy the fact that you are building long-term strength for the rest of your life as you enjoy and challenge yourself.
Live strong, be strong.Paul 'Spice' Twedt